As first round ties go, Celtic have had much easier tasks in previous years. They head to Bosnia to face a Sarajevo side who secured a league and cup double last season and have aspirations to be the first Bosnian side ever to reach the Champions League group stages.
It’s the first time Celtic have ventured to Bosnia in their long and illustrious history and this is by far their toughest first round tie for a number of years and will be a much bigger test than when they played Alashkert of Armenia at this stage last season. The Bosnian champions nicknamed ‘The Giants’ will be full of confidence after securing their first league title in four years, they’re relatively big underdogs for this one at a price of 5.5 to win the match. However Celtic have notoriously struggled away from home in Europe. Last season they lost all their Europa league away group games, they only managed a draw with FK Suduva in the play-off for the group stage too. They were also dispatched of by AEK in the Champions League qualifiers; in-fact their last European away win was at this stage in Armenia when they ran out 3-0 winners over the previously mentioned Alashkert.
With the weight of expectation that lies on Neil Lennon’s shoulders domestically, he’s also expected to bring some form of success in Europe. It’s a huge revenue stream for Celtic and he’ll be judged on his results in this competition. Lennon has masterminded some of Celtic’s most famous European wins, most notably of course was that 2-1 win over Barcelona. Lennon can’t ride the coat tails of that legacy forever and he’ll want to make new headlines in this years competition. The Hoops are priced at 1.62 to win the match and you’d expect them to do so, provided that they turn up; which is never guaranteed with Celtic in Europe.
A quick scroll through the goal scorer markets shows you the number of attacking options Lennon has on offer for his European return. Leigh Griffiths could make a long awaited return to action alongside Odsonne Edouard. Vakoun Issouf Bayo is also available but is unlikely to start. James Forrest has so often been the man for big occasions in green and white, I fancy him to get on the score sheet at a cracking price of 3.75.
As mentioned, Leigh Griffiths is back and raring to go for The Celts after several months out with personal issues. Lennon is a big fan of the Scottish forward and will be hoping to get him back to his best, which is one of the best players at the club. New signing Christopher Jullien could make his debut at centre-half, the towering Frenchman is one of two new defenders at the club with Belgian left back Boli Bolingoli-Mbombo also looking to make his first appearance after making the switch from the Austrian Bundesliga. Amidst the strong rumours of Kieran Tierney’s move to Arsenal, it’s a great chance for the new arrival to get off to a string start with both the manager and the fans.
Celtic will likely lead with one striker in a 4-2-3-1 system. Edouard will be the focal point, he’s priced at 2.25 to find the net, making him the bookies favourite for a goal. Forrest will look to be his usual industrious self from the right hand-side and we could see Ryan Christie come back in to the fold for the first time since that sickening collision with Aberdeen’s Lewis Ferguson at Hampden. The left hand side is up for debate as Lennon makes his choice between the experienced Scott Sinclair or young prodigy Mikey Johnston. Lennon has quite the soft spot for Johnston and I can see him starting here; the winger will be desperate to show that the hype around him is justified as he looks likely to get more game time this campaign.
Sarajevo are a bit of an unknown quantity for many and this match probably echoes memories of previous campaigns for Celtic fans, such as that infamous trip to Armenia Bratislava that ended in a 5-0 defeat. Celtic staff were accused of not doing their research and underestimating their opponents, something that cannot happen here.
The hosts main threats come from central areas. 34 year old target man Mersudin Ahmetovic is their talismanic forward, he hit 16 goals and was a huge contributor to their title winning campaign. He has been capped twice by the Bosnian national team and will provide a thorough test for a new look Celtic backline. Amar Rahmanovic is one I’d single out to keep an eye on, he’s another physical presence but operates in the number 10 role. The former Maribor midfielder helped himself to 11 goals last season, an impressive return from a deeper position.
This is far from an easy draw for the Scottish champions and as is the case so often in these gams they’ll need a string character to come through in what will be a very hostile atmosphere. Christopher Jullien is a quality signing and should really help sure up their defence, he’ll play alongside Bosnian native – Jozo Simunovic and I expect them to strike up a quality partnership from the get go. A Celtic win is well priced at 1.57 and I’m confident they’ll do the job. Lennon has plenty of options to call on from the bench if he needs to and I struggle to see Srajevo keeping out Celtc’s forwards. An away win and over 1.5 goals looks like great value at 2.1.